Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of the Posies talk about fame, Shatner and Big Star
The Posies (due tonight at The Gothic Theatre) had the good fortune -- or bad, depending on your perspective -- of being a non-grunge rock band in Seattle that came into its own during the era when, for far too many people, "alternative" became synonymous with "grunge."
The band, lead by Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, would have been a noteworthy act in any era. Its brand of power pop struck a chord with discerning listeners. Although the Posies never quite gained the notoriety as some of the other Pacific Northwest outfits, not being part of the whole grunge thing also meant that The Posies remained largely untouched by the backlash against "alternative" music in the mid '90s.
In 1993 -- the same year that Frosting on the Beater, a bona fide modern power pop classic was released -- Stringfellow and Auer joined Big Star for that band's return to favor. For seventeen years, until Alex Chilton's death on March 17, 2010, Stringfellow and Auer got to be a part of a band that had come to be a big influence on the early days of The Posies.
After some extended breaks to work on music as solo artists, the pair returned this year with Blood/Candy sounding as solid as ever. We had the opportunity to speak with Stringfellow and Auer about their history, their various projects and the new record.
Westword: What do you like about living in France, and what do you miss most about the USA while you're there and vice versa?
Ken Stringfellow: Wow, well I have to say that first off that I don't get homesick for the U.S. at all. I know that sounds terrible, but I was born in the USA and I've lived here until a few years ago, and I'm well familiar with things here, and I feel like I've got what I was going to get out of this culture and felt like I should start learning about a few other cultural aspects beyond what I get out of touring and visiting places briefly.
I love living in Europe, and I love living in France. I've got a great family and a great situation in Paris, and Il de Re and I have a really good fan base in Europe, and I'm constantly going and playing different places from Lithuania to Andorra. It's just wonderful.
When I come to the States, I come to some Mexican joints and barbecue joints, because you can't really get that in France. Other than that, I feel sort of like a familiar visitor when I'm in the states. I've gotten used to buildings being a lot closer together and the coffee being smaller and the polyglot aspect of cosmopolitan Europe.
Being in New York is a little like that too, it's very cosmopolitan: One guy is speaking Arabic and one guy is speaking Ukranian and every person on the street could be from anywhere in the world. But it's still not the same. I miss my family very much, but it's the price to pay for not being as successful as we could be.
We're not a multi-platinum selling band. If there's a reward for being at that level, one of the rewards for not being in the mainstream, we've cultivated our audience and our audience has cultivated us in a way. I'd like to think our audience is a nice mix of erudite and populist in a weird way. That seems like a total paradox, but Radiohead is that kind of music too -- a multiplatinum band that is also challenging.
We don't come off as experimental, and we mix a bit of tradition into what we do with the kinds of structures that we like. We do what we do by choice. We could make an album like Kid A. What interests us is a particular kind of structure, and we mix in sonic experimentation into that mix.
We are melodic, and yet so are half the songs on Young Country 101. Where we experiment the most, in a way, is in how we can tell a story through imagery that is really out there but keep the story moving forward. Whereas, going back to Radiohead, a song like "Everything In Its Right Place," it's fragments that are really intriguing.
We don't really do fragments, we do kind of a more -- not linear path -- but there's a narrative to what we do. I suppose our biggest crusade, as it were, is to convince -- as if people want to be convinced of anything; people come to music often to confirm their prejudices, which is too bad. But if I could say something about our band that I wish everybody would understand is that, you know, don't let the structure fool you.
You have a building like Frank Geary, and it's wild -- it's screaming, "Hey, I'm so wild." Then you have what looks to be a conventional house but it's 100 percent emissions free, and it's full of modern concepts, but when you first look at it, you think, "Oh, that's nice little house." I think our band is a bit like that. It's more modern than the craft that goes into it might lead you to think.
On The Posies' website you said you weren't famous. Why do you believe that, and what do you think are the pros and cons of being famous?
KS: I think my station in life is a really good one. We evolve into what we truly believe our potential is. So if something is holding you back, maybe it's you and not the outside world. Maybe somewhere in me, there was some lack of faith to believe in myself, to the point where I'm a semi-messianic figure or something like that.
I've had experiences, such as the years I've spent playing with REM. Michael Stipe is definitely in the world of celebrity, and he also loves that world, and he's really into it, and it suits him well for his ventures into the film world and that sort of thing. I think that's a great lifestyle for him.
For me, having been able to sit there right alongside, I like to choose when to be visible. That's something really cool. I think that for people who are extremely famous -- like people you see on the cover of People or whatever -- I think that life is a nightmare.
Having everyone look at you and want to interact with you. When I'm at a show and I'm small potatoes, people want to be part of your moment there, and they don't realize you have to take a pee or whatever, and there's a hundred people more that also want a moment, and if you're a generous person you'll want to do that. For me, that turns off as soon as the show is over.
My life is not really in the celebrity radar at all, and I think that's really cool. My name is out there far and wide. Many people know who I am, and it's sort of direct marketing and the people who know me the best are generally other musicians. And that's great and as long as I have those people paying attention to what I do and helping me and all those kinds of things, life is good.
Yes, it takes a few fans to keep things going, too. I do need them to do what I do, actually, so that helps too. I like our fans. The people I meet at our shows -- we generally have a very cool, intelligent audience. We're kind of an unpretentious band, and I think our audience is unpretentious in that sense, too.
There are moments when I wake up in a cold sweat thinking, "My god!" Twenty years from now, I'm not going to be able to put on the kind of show I am now, that's very physical. Will I be able to sing like that twenty years from now? Will I have the physical strength to do what I do to go on tour? When I'm in my 60s and 70s, will anyone care about it, and how am I going to make a living when I'm old?
I think about those things all the time, and it can be a little freaky to think about that. Right now, I make a nice living. I have fans, and I have colleagues that respect me without people trying to break into my house and look through my garbage.
With the fame and wealth part, you get more isolated from having to clean up your own messes and take responsibility for your actions. That's not me saying something about R.E.M. They're pretty responsible guys. But I've met a lot of people through them, and I've seen that some people are not always responsible and you have a cushion. And I sort of prefer real life to be directly in contact with me, not only for my own life, but for my art. I know what I have with my family, and I'm not looking to trade up every five minutes.
How did you come to play in Sky Cries Mary, and what is the most vivid memory you have of playing in that band? How did people respond to that band as opposed to The Posies later on?
KS: [laughs] That's funny because Roderick Romero was at our New York show. I went to The University of Washington in 1986, '87 and '88, before The Posies started. I'd already known Jon Auer because we went to high school together in Bellingham. Then I moved up to Seattle to go to university for a couple of unproductive but interesting years -- I mean I didn't get a degree, but I made a lot of contacts.
I took a theater class, and everyone took a shine to me. I wasn't acting, but I was learning how theater works. So I was working with a director, and they brought in a real director, and they had more advanced drama students, and you'd do work on plays and learn about all the different aspects of how to put a play together.
Roderick was in this play, and I met him, and he and I just kind of hit it off. He was doing this performance art piece -- typical '80s, rage against the machine, fetuses, whatever kind of deal. He put this together, and I was part of it, and I got Jon involved.
We met him, and we were working on four-track recording, and it was kind of a birthday present for Roderick. We brought him up to Bellingham, where Jon had the studio, where we recorded the first Posies album, that Jon had put together at his house with his dad, who was an amateur musician. They had an eight-track studio.
We brought Roderick up there and did some recording, and he went on to study acting in France at a school there. While he was there, he got a record deal with this indie label, New Rose. So he came back and had a couple thousand bucks to make a record, and so we did this album together.
The first album we did was really diverse. But the shows were very minimal -- with just drums, bass and vocals, which was very raw, but it was cool. I think the big performance art bits we did were even better, and they were so of that era that's hard to explain. The anti-corporate kind of thing, outrageous props and it's the kind of art that no one sees, and the people that do see it totally agree with your message.
So it was kind of funny in that aspect, but it was definitely fun to do. But then the band went on to do all sorts of different things, and it became a band with eight people and did ever different kinds of music and added Anisa Romero's vocals to the mix later. Early on, they had this bass player who was really good, and we stole him for the Posies, this guy Joe Skyward, and he played on two of our albums.
How were you approached to work record on William Shatner's album Has Been, and what was it like working with those guys?
Jon Auer: Whoa... let me think about this for a second. That was one of the most surreal projects to ever be considered to be a part of to begin with. I played a show with Ben Folds back in the early 2000s, and we kind of hit it off. He did the unthinkable and took my number and actually called me later.
He's the guy that got me involved with that project because he produced it. I can still remember coming home to the answering machine for that one. That's the kind of legitimate double take that occurs when you hear something like that. It was really quite indescribable, in some ways, because I've worked with some really cool musicians, and I've had some really heavy duty people cover songs I wrote, like when Ringo Starr covered a Posies song. But to actually hang out with a television icon on a daily basis for a while...
What I remember was that the strangest thing wouldn't be working on the music -- which he was around for some of it, and sometimes, he'd just give us his input and leave. It was more just the daily occurrence that would happen where he would say something very mundane to you but it would be with that voice. So he'd say, "Could you pass that diet Coke on that table over there to me." And yet it would be in that voice, that unmistakable Shatner voice, and you would just kind of freeze for a second.
Beyond that, I played on a bit of the record. A lot of what I did, didn't get used because it didn't fit. Honestly, being a guitar player on a Ben Folds-produced record, you're going to kind of be the superfluous element. But I got to hang around for things like Henry Rollins and Shatner building their duet from the ground up. I sat there all day and watched them meet each other, write it, record it -- that's an experience you just can't trade for anything.
Were you there when Adrian Belew showed up?
JA: I hung out for that as well. Surprisingly enough, when Shatner mentioned to Henry Rollins that Adrian Belew was going to show up, Henry Rollins freaked out. Little did I know -- and this might really upset some of his more hardcore fans -- he's a huge King Crimson fan, even all the fusion stuff.
The funny thing is that I don't think much of what Adrian did ended up on the record. But he sat there and made cool, elephant guitar noises for Shatner and then went home. It was an amazing grab bag of people showing up because they wanted to meet the guy, be around the guy and be a part of it. I was really lucky.
When did you learn about Big Star? What kind of impact did their music have on you? How did you become involved in the band's revival? And what was it like working with Alex and Jody?
JA: Well, you know, Big Star is one of the greatest bands that never got the attention they deserved when they were a band. In this day and age of the Internet and file sharing and trading, it's so much easier to get a hold of what they did and a better sense of what they were about. Of course, now we also have all these amazing reissues, but at the time, I heard Big Star for the first time they were this cult band on the brink. People were starting to name-check them in interviews, but it really hadn't reached its peak, in terms of awareness.
The first time I heard Big Star was when I worked in this record store in Seattle, around the time the Posies were staring and we had just made our first record, this pop record called Failure. I had never heard Big Star Before but everybody I'd played the Posies for, they were into collecting music, they would say, "Wow, you must really love this band Big Star, as well as all the other influences you have on your record."
I'd never heard of them. So I remember playing our record for the manager of the record store where I worked, and he said, "Come with me." And he lead me to the vinyl section of the store and he handed me the Big Beat reissue of this record called Radio City. Then he said, "Now I'm going to let you off work early, and I want you to go home and put on 'September Gurls,' the first thing you do."
I was thrilled when I heard that song. I've said it before, and perhaps it's a cliché, but it definitely sounded like something I'd heard before. It definitely had that vibe of when you meet someone you feel like you've known them for a long time even though you've never met them? That kind of situation. I just fell in love with that record and couldn't believe that no one had heard of it.
Eventually, the Posies became unofficial champions of Big Star. We covered a lot of their music. During the making of our second record, Dear 23, someone sent me a bootleg cassette of "I Am the Cosmos." It blew my mind, and I thought "I Am the Cosmos" was the most beautiful song I'd ever heard and instantly decided to cover it.
To me, it's one of the greatest heartbreak songs of all time, and it's practically spiritual, as far as I'm concerned. I love it that much. We recorded it as kind of a tribute single and somehow that worked its way into the hands of Jody Stephens, who played drums in Big Star. I think it might have been when a journalist in Memphis suggested we check out Ardent studios while we were going through town.
Little did we know that Jody is basically the A&R for Ardent Studios and still is. We laid a copy of the single on him, and he was really flattered. But once he heard it, I think he was really blown away. I remember seeing a message from Jody talking about how eerie he thought the similarities between our version and Chris Bell's was. It was very complimentary.
A couple of years later, someone asked me the unthinkable, "How do we make a Big Star show happen?" The answer was we just ask Jody Stephens and Alex Chilton if they would like to play. The funny thing is that Alex actually said, "Yes" this time. A short list was cobbled together, and we got on that short list along with some pretty heavy hitters in the biz in terms of alternative rock: I think Paul Westerberg was on that list, Matthew Sweet and Chris Stamey. It ended up making the most sense and Ken, and I got the gig, ultimately.
We ended up playing with them for seventeen years, and it was pretty great. It was very sporadic, we didn't do it a lot, but by the end of our time together, we got to know each other quite well and we were friendly. I will say it was a very collaborative affair. Initially, I always felt like a hired gun. That was my approach to it -- "Here I am to do a good job to provide you with what you need to honor this legacy of Big Star."
After a few years, Jody and Alex made Ken and I equal partners. They were just as glad to have us around as we were to be a part of what they were doing. People might want to assume the Posies were über reverential toward Big Star, but it was more a looking each other in the eye kind of situation than people might think.
Certainly, near the end, we had as much to do with making sure that it was possible to do Big Star shows, because we really took a lot of care with that music and we wanted to do a good job, and I think were totally the right people for the job. It was really something. I can't believe it's never going to happen again. That's really sad to me.
But I think that the way it got laid to rest was very appropriate, with the last couple of tributes that we did, where everybody came together and did their part to show how much they loved Big Star, too. I guess all good things must come to an end, you know. I don't think anyone thought it was going to happen as long as it did, so every bit of Big Star was icing on the cake.
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